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Tl;dr: Were bicycle frames in the mid-20th century generally longer than today?

This post asked about the length of a Soviet bike from the 1980s. The frame is longer than that of a contemporary bike the author compared it with.

I wondered whether that's less a question about Soviet bikes than about old bikes. Product design in the "socialist" countries didn't change very often; that frame design may have been decades old in 1987.

My very limited experience seems to support that idea: Most old bicycles I remember (often from decades before 1987) seem long and "comfortable". Among them are what we call "Holland" bikes (sometimes indeed manufactured in the Netherlands) and what I'd call "grandmother bikes", black long steel frames for an upright riding position. Of course there were contemporary racing bikes back then with different frame geometries; one possibility is that at all times short, agile frames for "sporty" bikes existed in parallel to long, stable frames for "comfortable" bikes. But I think it would be difficult to find such a long frame at all in the mainstream market today, so I think there is more to it than just a gradual shift in customer preferences.

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    I would argue that today there is such a wide variety of bike types, niche markets and such marketing "rhetoric", that the first challenge in order to answer is to determine to which bicycles of today should we compare. (I guess) in those years there where "bikes" ant that's it. Those bikes where used for commuting, touring, and pretty much anything that could be done with a bike. Am I right?
    – Jahaziel
    Sep 22, 2022 at 20:17
  • @Jahaziel Yes, that's a problem with my question. Let's say I'm asking about a "standard allround bike", or let's say if you take a sample of the bikes in the streets today, in a western city, what's the average frame length compared to a sample from 1950. Sep 23, 2022 at 7:55
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    To @Jahaziel's point, performance MTBs have most definitely gotten longer, coupled with short stems and other geometry changes. The bike in the post we're referring to was a utility bike, and I guess it could compare to modern hybrids aimed at commuters?
    – Weiwen Ng
    Sep 23, 2022 at 18:20

3 Answers 3

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Yes, the first "safety" bicycles had longer frames and rear triangles than current performance-oriented bikes. For example, have a look at this photo of world class track cyclists from 1907: Major Taylor and Leon Hourlier, 1909

It was found out quickly that shorter rear triangle and steeper angles have some performance benefits, so when you look for example at old photos of Tour de France riders, the frames they rode in the 1930s already look already quite similar to what they had in 1980s.

The Soviet bike in the referenced question was a close copy of english roadster design that is originally from early 1900s.

Image public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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    Even though 1907 is a little earlier than mid-20th century. Sep 22, 2022 at 17:10
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    You can edit the answer to "No, early bicycles did indeed have slacker angles and longer rear triangles but the geometry for performance-oriented bikes settled close to current one before mid-20th century" if you like.
    – ojs
    Sep 22, 2022 at 17:19
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    +1 for the photo of Major Taylor
    – shoover
    Sep 23, 2022 at 4:07
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    What is the performance benefit of a shorter rear triangle?
    – D Duck
    Sep 23, 2022 at 7:45
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    @DDuck I think that's worth a separate question. For this question I think it's enough to note that over the last 100 years road and track bike builders have experimented with a lot of designs but long rear triangles have been abandoned.
    – ojs
    Sep 23, 2022 at 8:00
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It is also the case that bike positioning has changed over the past 20-30 years. Compare these two versions of the Specialized Allez, one from 2021, one from 1993. The reach of the older bike is 35 mm longer (curiously, there's no stack number for the older bike). It is true that the Allez' place in the market has changed, so this isn't a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but I think the point stands. Racing bikes from the 90s tended to put the rider in more of a long, laid-flat position, while newer racing bikes tend to pull the rider down more, but not forward as much (more on this).

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    Those numbers can't be right. The 2021 bike has longer top tube and steeper seat angle, both of which increase reach. When I do the math, I get 15mm more reach for the 2021 version.
    – ojs
    Sep 22, 2022 at 17:54
  • Huh. I wonder if I can find a better example.
    – Adam Rice
    Sep 22, 2022 at 17:57
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    Even more, the 2021 bike is claimed to have 10 cm longer wheel base. It it was true, it would be about as long as the track bike from 1909.
    – ojs
    Sep 22, 2022 at 17:57
  • @ojs I was wondering about the numbers as well. Especially the 10 cm wheel base increase would be huge, and probably against the trend. Sep 22, 2022 at 17:59
  • The "vintage fit" in the linked article refers to racing bikes from before 90s and current Rivendell style. If you look at photos from back then, you'll see that back then racers had roughly the same position but had their elbows at 90 degree angle when now they have almost straight arms.
    – ojs
    Sep 22, 2022 at 18:00
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The question attempts to compare old bikes to new bikes and make a specific generalization - old bikes were generally longer than new bikes. According to the question "old" is "decades before 1987".

Bicycles are, and have been:

  • Made by different people and companies all over the world.
  • Made with different design parameters in mind - different use cases.

These two factors have driven a huge amount of variability over more than a century of bicycle evolution.

Answer:
What a bike is used for, it's use case, drives similarities rather than how old a bike is. Utility bikes tend to be longer, racing bikes tend to be shorter.

Here are some examples focusing on Peugeot as a sample:
Looking at 1980

Peugeot racing and touring bike from the 1997 catalog
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Peugeot racing bike and touring bike from the 1980 catalog

PY 10 S
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Racing bike and touring bike from the 1950 catalog
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Here is a 1933 road racing bike
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Notice the longer wheelbase.
This is due to the use case.

Board track and road racing bicycles of the prewar era have a more relaxed frame geometry as compared to modern race bikes. This made these bikes less responsive, therefore more challenging to handle in tight quarters, however the long wheelbase made the road racing bicycles more stable on the mostly unpaved roads they raced on.
The Racing Bicycle

Over the years road surfaces had greatly improved in Europe, bicycle tires had become narrower; as a result rear chainstays could be made shorter, therefore stiffer. Couple this with the steeper head and less fork rake, and bike wheelbases became a lot shorter.
Dave Moulton

enter image description here
Classic Cycle - Schwinn Museum

If you compare utility bikes through history they are very similar.
Comparing racing bikes, when roads were rough wheelbases were longer. As roads improve wheelbases shorten.
Function rather than age is the key factor.

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    Also, racing bikes do not need the space for larger tyres and fenders. Sometimes they have just the space for a 23 mm tyre else they would rub the seatstay. Sep 23, 2022 at 14:33
  • It would be interesting to know why board track bikes that were intended to never be ridden outdoors had longer wheelbases when roads were rougher.
    – ojs
    Sep 23, 2022 at 15:18
  • Other argument against this reasoning would be that current cyclocross and gravel bikes are designed to be ridden in similar conditions as 1930s road bikes but somehow they similar or very slightly longer wheel base than current road bikes.
    – ojs
    Sep 23, 2022 at 15:21
  • @ojs So you are saying that it is function over age because in the '30s racing bikes were functionally equivalent to today's gravel bikes?
    – David D
    Sep 23, 2022 at 15:32
  • @DavidD I'm saying that current gravel bikes have similar use case as '30s road racing bikes but different design that is based on lessons learned over 90 years.
    – ojs
    Sep 23, 2022 at 15:41

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